It had the lowest turnout of any constituency in the UK at the 2015 general election. But fresh from a by-election and a fired-up electorate which overwhelmingly backed Brexit, could June’s ballot see Stoke-on-Trent Central return to the polls?
“They are all just in it for themselves. I don’t really see how my vote can change anything.”
Mick Billington, Hanley town centre’s postman, hasn’t voted in years.
“The literature comes through my door from all the parties, but I don’t read it. I just throw it in the bin,” he says.
“I thought about voting in the referendum. The Mrs kept saying ‘come on, we should go’, but you know how it is, you get in from work and you’re comfortable.”
He is not alone.
While many were moved to vote in the EU Referendum, Stoke Central’s turnout at general elections has been falling steadily for 67 years – from a record high of 83% in 1950 to 51% in 2015, the lowest in the UK.
This once-proud Labour heartland – the party has held the seat every election since 1950 – is now home to an electorate that has become increasingly uninterested in politics.
Mr Billington’s indifference for voting is not reflected in his views of the NHS.
His 86-year-old mother died six weeks ago, following a fall which saw her hospitalised for a fractured spine.
She’d suffered with dementia and when he visited her in hospital, Mr Billington saw for himself the pressures staff were under.
“People were lining the corridors [in their beds]. We’re in 2017, not the 1940s or 50s,” he says, his voice teetering on the edge of exasperation.
“I was saying to my wife only last night, I’d be happy to pay an extra £1 a week to help the NHS.”
It’s a rainy day in Hanley, one of the six Potteries towns that were amalgamated into the city of Stoke-on-Trent in 1910.
Over the years, it has become the city’s main shopping centre, but it has suffered some decline as shops including Argos, JD Sports and much-loved independent bookshop Webberley’s all closed.
While Stoke-on-Trent City Council is part way through regeneration plans – a four-star Hilton hotel is planned for the growing new Smithfield site and a shopping complex is due to replace the old bus station – some feel not enough is being done to breathe new life into the town centre.
As lunchtime approaches, some streets in the centre are virtually empty of shoppers. Several units are boarded up.
Carol Dugan works at JM Edwards tobacconist, opened by the late Tony Edwards in 1952.
“There’s not enough done in Hanley to support us. Shops are boarded up but the council doesn’t lower the rent to attract new ones in,” she says.
“The druggies and the homeless have also become a really big problem.”
A staunch Conservative, she chose not to follow her late father’s own political beliefs.
“My dad was Labour. But he’d turn in his grave if he could see what was happening in the party now.
“I don’t know why so many people don’t vote. I vote because I’m a woman. Women died to give us the vote and we should use it.”
Kevin Jones was a third generation Royal Doulton worker until he was made redundant when the china maker closed its last UK factory more than a decade ago.
He now runs Oatie Mostons in Market Square, selling Staffordshire oatcakes from his van.
“I haven’t voted for a few year,” he says. “After I was made redundant I became very disillusioned with things. They say the same things over and over but nothing ever changes.”
Despite his apathy, Mr Jones felt strongly enough to vote to remain in the EU – something 69.4% of Stoke-on-Trent’s voting population disagreed with.
He is a floating voter and says he will probably take part in the forthcoming General Election.
He likes Gareth Snell, who was elected to the Stoke-on-Trent Central seat over UKIP’s Paul Nuttall in February’s by-election.
“He’s a people person. He comes into town and he talks to people,” says Mr Jones.
“The Labour party should have more people like him and maybe they wouldn’t have as many problems.”
He also wouldn’t mind paying more tax.
“I’d be prepared to pay more to pay for the right things,” he adds.
“People are living longer – the money [to care for them] has got to come from somewhere.
“But I disagree in giving money to young people who haven’t put anything in.”
Mr Jones points to the pedestrian area outside his van, which is parked between Boots and Poundland.
“There are people begging here all the time. They come from outside Stoke – they know people here are generous. I’ve seen people give them £5 notes.”
Stoke-on-Trent Central: Constituency profile
- Population: 84,159
- Average weekly pay: £440
- Average house price: £93,000
- Number of registered businesses: 2,180
- Number of people claiming out-of-work benefits: 7,920 (14.3% of population compared to national rate of 9.0%)
- Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency page
Source: House of Commons Library Statistics
Mr Jones talks of being told about families where three generations have never had jobs.
“It’s a lifestyle choice for some, and it shouldn’t be.”
At the end of 2016, there was an estimated 17 rough sleepers a night on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent.
Tackling homelessness is on the agenda for the three main political parties.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn plans to make 4,000 homes across the country available to the homeless, while Lib Dem boss Tim Farron wants to introduce a policy that will place long-term rough sleepers straight into independent homes rather than emergency shelters.
The Conservatives aim to eradicate rough sleeping by 2027, and want to set up a homeless reduction taskforce.
For lifelong Labour supporter Janet Ellis, education is a top priority.
“Schools – I’ve got two young grandchildren, aged five and eight – and their education is very important,” she says.
“These schools that have large classes and just one teacher in charge – how can that be good for them?”
She is in the town centre with her eldest grandson, Ethan Jenkins, having just given him a lift to an interview for an engineering apprenticeship.
Aged 18, he’s looking forward to being able to vote for the first time.
“I’m voting because I’ve got the right to. A lot of people my age were in uproar that we couldn’t vote in the referendum,” he says.
“One person in particular was very angry and he’s campaigning to get the voting age lowered to 16.”
He’s decided to back Labour, but not because his grandmother is a lifelong supporter.
“I’m not very political at all, but I’ve read a lot about what Labour is standing for, such as getting rid of hospital parking charges,” he says.
“My step-dad works in the NHS and we’ve been a few times when relatives have been in hospital and you’re there fumbling about with change.”
Wearing a black T-shirt with “Too Glam to Give a Damn” in bright pink letters makes Laura Cook stand out among the rain-soaked shoppers.
Aged 23 and a manager at the Kurt Geiger concession in Debenhams, she and her partner have just bought a property.
Despite her glittery message, pay is a big issue for her.
“Costs of things are starting to rise but our wages aren’t. Everything [previously] stretched quite well but it’s becoming harder,” she says.
“I’m only 23 – owning a property is a big deal. I’m not poorly paid and I’m very fortunate.
“I’ve worked since I was 16 – I used to work at Alton Towers.
“But the cost of living is rising for everyone. I’ve had to work and work hard.”
She’s voted in elections ever since she turned 18. “It’s important. If you’ve got a vote you should use it. Plenty of people my age don’t.”
And plenty of people who aren’t her age don’t either.
Whether or not more constituents in Stoke Central will be fired up enough to cast their vote on 8 June is yet to be seen.
All photography by Gavin Dickson
- The full list of candidates in Stoke-on-Trent Central in the general election on 8 June is Peter Andras (Lib Dem), Adam Colclough (Greens), Barbara Fielding (Independent), Mick Harold (UKIP), Daniel Jellyman (Conservative), Gareth Snell (Labour)